Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Performative Word

We have come to think of God's Word as something which requires something from us for it to effect anything.  So we presume that the Word requires hearing in order for it to be effective, a response from us which is the evidence of the Word's power.  So, we must appreciate it and apply it, or, perhaps, enjoy it is a more modern way of putting things.  The success of the Word depends upon us -- how we receive it and what we do in response to it.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

God's Word does not hover in the air awaiting something from us.  His Word is performative.  We see that especially in the Sacraments.  His Word is performative -- with water it is baptism, the means through which we are united with Christ into His death and resurrection or with bread and wine and the body and blood are present in and with the bread and wine so that we might receive Christ and His gifts.

It would seem that much of the to do about worship proceeds from the idea that we must complete that Word with some sort of reaction or response on our part.  So the design of what happens on Sunday morning becomes a tool to ensure just that reaction or response.  In other words, we no longer believe that God's Word bestows what it promises and sends forth the Spirit to so that the hearer may receive for his or her benefit the grace bespoken.  God's Word is not the living voice but just words whose effect and value depends upon the hearer's response, application, and use of that Word.

If this is the way we think, then the preacher is at least as important as the Word preached.  So, the preacher's task is to make the Word work, to enable that Word to transform the hearer and make a difference in his or her live.  The preacher is the key here since how he says it is at least as important as what he says.  Such a denial of the efficacy of the Word is often what is behind the kind of personalized and dramatic preaching that is so lauded among many.  Without confidence in the performative character of that Word, the preacher is the key link to an effective reception. 

When it comes to the worship, the same thing is true.  Without faith in the Word to do what says, to bestow that of which it speaks, and to enable the faithful reception of the hearer by the power of the Spirit, what you do on Sunday morning is the key to the effectiveness of worship.  Music, drama, etc... all become tools in the toolbelt of the worship planner to design the worship service toward a specific end.  Its success is measurable in the reception of those who participate.  If they clap at the songs the worship divas sing, it is a sure sign that they have been moved by them.  If there is little or no response, it is a sure sign something went wrong.

One of the hardest things for Lutherans to get a handle on is that preaching and liturgy begin from the premise that God's Word is performative -- it acts and something happens whether or not we see it, measure it, or appreciate it.  His Word does not depend upon us to be effective.  It is the viva vox Jesu through which God does His bidding, to which His Spirit is tied, by which His gifts and grace are bestowed, and because of which we are enabled to respond.  The goal of the preacher is not to compete with this Word but for the Word to use the full resources of the preacher in its divinely assigned goal and purpose.  The goal of the liturgy is to serve this Word so that the focus remains upon Jesus (which the liturgy does by literally praying this Word of the Lord -- of which the liturgy is mostly sung and spoken Scripture).

The anecdote of Abraham Heschel is appropriate here.  When a man complained about the liturgy not praying for what he wanted, Heschel responds that liturgy teaches us what to pray for.  In other words, we do not direct the liturgy anymore than we direct God.  The liturgy directs us because of the performative Word.  We do not know what to pray for. It is the liturgy that teaches us what to pray for.  The liturgy not only embodies our prayers but it teaches us what to pray for.

In the same way the preacher does not approach the sermon with the question "what shall I preach today?"  No, there is not a question here to be answer.  Rather, the preacher approaches the Word of the Lord with the confidence that it is performative, efficacious, and effective.  The issue is not what to preach but what does the Word of the Lord say and to speak that Word faithfully from the pulpit to the lives of the hearers in such way that the Word remains the center of it all.

1 comment:

Floyd Smithey said...

Pastor Peters, thanks for your post on the performative word of God. I "googled" the performative word and your blog came up as one of the first few links. I am a freshly retired LCMS pastor, now living in Knoxville, Tn and a member at First Lutheran. Thanks again. In Christ, Pastor Floyd Smithey
floydperrysmitheyjr@gmail.com